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Traversing the path from apathy to empathy

This article was first published in Financial Express on September 7, 2022

Why do businesses need to put humans at the centre of planning & strategy-building?

The other day, we were in an in-depth conversation with a front-line machine operator named Raghu who is from Coorg but making a living in Bengaluru. We were speaking to several such semi-skilled and lightly-skilled workers to understand how they find jobs. Raghu was vividly describing to us why he discontinued studies after PUC and started working at a young age of 16. In his broken but completely comprehensible English, he said, “no money, no food, so work.” Finding a job, then, became a necessity for him. When we asked him how he found a job in Bengaluru, he said, “my friend told me, ‘come to Bengaluru, I will teach you operate a machine’, so I went with him. I did not know anything of Bengaluru. I’m from a village, madam.

Probing deeper, on how a job reference from a friend helped, he said, “friend see us every day, he know us, our situation. If friend there, then why worry?” This stayed with me. Friends are empathetic. They feel and think for us.

The realms of apathy and sympathy in business

Transpose this statement to the business world, and we have seen cases ranging from apathy to empathy all around us. Whether it was a delayed flight, hungry, angry and tired passengers waiting for hours to know what’s happening and not being informed of even the reason for the delay, or the sheer horrors of returning a damaged product sold by a unicorn business “curated D2C platform” because their AI customer service is awful and there’s no customer service phone number! - we see cases of apathy towards consumers day in and out.

Talking about sympathy, let’s take the example of Tata Nano. It was born out of sympathy towards the two-wheeler riders who bear heat and rain and providing them with a low-cost solution. Little did the Tatas know that the consumers did not want to associate themselves with a product that declared their “financial limitations” to the world.

What’s missing in the mix?

How often do businesses look at their offerings through the lens of their cognitive biases? Perhaps all the time! Businesses forget to see that users do not just have physical needs but also have functional needs, social needs and emotional needs. This myopic sight leads them to usually solving only one of the problems and overlooking the holistic picture.

Business verticals operating in silos add to the chaos. Designers and Product Managers often look at the users as a mere number or a goal. Customer Experience teams “talk” with the users, but they often miss establishing a connection with the users that goes way beyond scratching the surface and knowing the users, their ecosystems and thinking intimately.

Understanding the human to create an experience

How many times do we stop to ask this seemingly obvious, fundamental question — whom am I designing for and make enough time to immerse in their world, understand them, and then make relevant products or experiences?

It’s time businesses put people at the centre of thinking and feeling - be Raghu’s that friend. Know your user’s dreams, aspirations, desires, motivations, challenges and their strategies to combat those challenges. And, you can only know this if you empathise with them.

Getting on to the path of empathy

Empathy is not a phase; it’s not even a process. Empathy is a mindset that everyone in the organisation should develop. But, it’s not easy to develop an empathetic mindset and culture in business.

The easiest step is to onboard an expert. The expert who understands and decodes human behaviour to bridge the gap between the user needs and business offerings. The expert with the ability to converge the silos and make everyone get a unified view of the problem statement, understand each other’s pain points, and work towards a solution that benefits, well, almost everyone if not everyone. When department leaders empathise with each other, empathising with the users, bringing their perspectives to the table, and solving their problems becomes easier.

There is a universal need (businesses and users) for something new, to grow and prosper, the need for ease or comfort, to connect with each other, to look for value and above all aspiring for something better. When a business internalises these basic drivers, the strategy becomes empathetic and human-centred.


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